“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.” Who would have thought that the words uttered by Lena Dunham in the first episode of HBO’s Girls in 2012 would turn out to be correct a decade later? At least, the second part is: the TV show is currently being rewatched en masse by one generation and newly discovered by another. According to The New York Times, viewership of the series – which initially aired between 2012 and 2017 – doubled last winter compared to the months prior. A crop of podcasts devoted to rewatching and analysing the show have also found success. All this, in 2023, in spite of Girls being ‘cancelled’ about a thousand times, its writer and creator Lena Dunham even moreso, and the characters being not just unlikeable but frequently hateable.
Girls is a sort of satirical Sex and the City if Carrie and her friends lived in Brooklyn and wore jeggings. Hannah (Dunham) is an aspiring writer, newly unsupported by her parents, running around New York with “work, and then I have a dinner thing, and then I am busy Trying To Become Who I Am”. Marnie (Alison Williams) is uptight and falling out of love with her college boyfriend: “I can feel him being nice to me and it makes me so angry”. Shoshana (Zosia Mamet), the youngest of the lot, is a student at NYU and “the least virginy-virgin ever”. She idolises her British cousin, Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a cross between an absent father and someone straight out of the Arts Block.
The pilot episode of Girls is the best start to a TV series I’ve ever seen. It makes silly young people the butt of the joke, but also the ones writing the jokes. From there on, the show is saturated with excruciating, incredibly executed cringe: in Season 2, Marnie crashes her ex-boyfriend’s corporate party and sings a painfully sincere rendition of ‘Stronger’ by Kanye West. Even if the exact situations aren’t ones I find myself in, the experience of being in your early twenties is pretty universally embarrassing, I think. Girls encapsulates this perfectly.
However, the show is not without its pitfalls. It is noticeably white, for one. Especially considering Girls is set in New York, the lack of diversity seems like it would be almost difficult to achieve by accident. Dunham made a flakey attempt at responding to criticism along these lines by hiring Donald Glover as a love interest for Hannah, but she also wrote him as a Republican who Hannah breaks up with within a couple of episodes because “I can’t be with someone who’s not an ally to gays and women”. Dunham has been open about basing the characters on herself and the people she knows (in particular, Jessa is based on Jemima Kirke, who plays her). Whilst part of the characters’ humour is how insular they are, this undoubtedly extends to the structure of the show in a way that is potentially damaging.
The show incited as much uproar for its content as it did praise for its wit. The first season won two Golden Globes and a litany of awards followed. There is also a Twitter (X) account called ‘Lena Dunham Apologises’, dedicated purely to satirising the showrunner’s scandals. Some of the criticism was founded (please note: I am not trying to ‘separate the art from the artist’ here), but much of it was also cruelty about Dunham’s body. There is a lot of nudity in the show. Sometimes it involves sex but often it’s characters lazing around the house, going clubbing in a mesh top with no bra, or eating a cupcake in the bath. To me, it makes sense that a show geared towards people somewhere between adolescence and real adulthood doesn’t skirt around the bodily realities of this time. If characters are figuring out their relationships to their bodies at the same time as they figure out their relationships to everything else, why would you only show the latter on screen? American radio host Howard Stern said that Dunham showing her body on TV “feels like rape”. This comment got just as much traction as the actual nuanced, considered questions about sexual assault that the show asked.
There was also criticism about how awful the characters were, as if that is not exactly the reason that Girls is so funny. In the late 2010s there were a litany of ‘unlikeable female characters’ on screen, hailed as revolutionary representation for women. The titular Girls of this show are undeniably, frequently unlikeable. They didn’t get the same response as their cinematic counterparts. What separates them from the ‘unlikeable’ female characters who were celebrated, I believe, is that they don’t have a good reason for it. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag makes plenty of mistakes, but she is also traumatised and often misunderstood. When the characters in Girls are self-obsessed, whiny and selfish in ways that negatively impact others, they don’t have a proper excuse. The show doesn’t really provide justifications for its characters behaving badly, they just are.
It is freeing and funny to see women being awful on screen for no reason other than their personalities. I hope I’m not like the characters on Girls, but I don’t doubt that I am sometimes selfish and whiny and have made a whole host of bad decisions. So many books, shows and songs currently seem to seek relatability. The characters on Girls are not immediately relatable, and frequently absurd (in the first episode, Shosanna shares that her apartment is “a great deal for Nolita. I mean, $2,100 a month – amaze”). I have a theory, though, that the Girl who annoys you the most is the one you are most like. It’s all the more humbling – and hilarious – when you suddenly see parts of yourself on the screen when they are contained in an utterly unrelatable character.
It is also a lesson, I think, in not trying to separate your mistakes from some other, unblemished definition of yourself. When the characters in Girls try to reason away their mistakes with accounts of the times they have been a good friend or person, it is unconvincing. It’s a reminder that trying to excuse our mistakes and paint ourselves as better people than they would imply is not usually the best way to move past them. For swathes of the show, the Girls move unabashedly forward despite other characters pointing out their flaws and foibles. As Hannah says: “People have been calling me a narcissist since I was three so it doesn’t really upset me, you’ve got to choose something more creative.” It is tempting to do the same as a viewer – laughing and lamenting the ignorance and incompetencies of the characters. But I think Girls continues to resonate because it doesn’t try to justify the messiness of its character. It can make us root and cry for fictionalisations that are terribly annoying and sometimes just terrible. Maybe this makes it easier to root for ourselves on the occasions when we’re the same.
It seems like the show is going to offer up simple answers to what being a girl in your twenties is – that there are four pathways open to you and it’s up to you (or fate) to pick. The failings of the characters and the success of the writing lie in its shirking of these anticipations. Girls is unexpected and funny and problematic and sometimes awful to watch. So is life. Perhaps that’s why it’s the only part of 2012 that people want to keep reliving.